Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ and he said, ‘Here am I.’
(Then God tells Moses to go back to Egypt to free the Hebrew people who were in bondageMoses still thought he was an Egyptian, having been raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter as her own child. Moses is incredulouswhy should he be given this task to free the Hebrew people. He asks God what he should tell him the people when they ask who sent mein other words, he’s asking God’s name.)
“God said to Moses, ‘I Am that I Am’ and he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” From Exodus
Second Reading: From A Song of the Rolling Earth, Whitman
A song of the rolling earth, and of words according.
Were you thinking that those were the words, those
upright lines? Those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are
in the ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you.
Were you thinking that those were the words, those
delicious sounds out of your friends’ mouths?
No, the real words are more delicious than they…
Air, soil, water, firethose are words,
I myself am a word with themmy qualities
interpenetrate with theirs…
The charms that go with the mere looks of some men and
women, are sayings and meanings also.
The workmanship of souls is by those inaudible words
of the earth…
I swear I will never henceforth have to do with the faith that tells the best, I will have only to do with that faith that leaves the best untold.
SERMON: Why God Won’t Go Away
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the word God? Think about it for a minute.
What’s your frame of reference for this word, God? How was it used at home when you were growing up? How does it relate to the religion of your childhoodwas it a positive word for you growing up? Is it positive now?
Many Unitarian Universalists say they do not believe in God, and I like to ask, “Which one? Tell me about the God you do not believe in.”
The God they describe is usually a childhood or even a childish ideathe big, grey-bearded man in the sky who sits on a throne.
Many would say that God is not located in the sky but in the heart. Indeed, in our Building Your Own Theology classes many define God as synonymous with compassion.
A couple of years ago a Christian clergy colleague told me that he was asked to officiate at a wedding for a couple who were old college friends of his. During their planning sessions they told him that they were practicing Unitarians, and he asked what that meant to them. They said, “We consider ourselves spiritual, but not religious.”
They explained that they wanted a wedding ceremony that affirmed their spirituality, but avoided a particular theology.
My colleague asked to speak with me to see if he could get a better understanding of what this couple meant by saying they were spiritual but not religious. He asked what kind of theological assumptions we Unitarians make, and in light of my answer he asked me to describe a typical Unitarian wedding ceremony.
He seemed quite satisfied with our conversation and said he would try to do the ceremony without using the word God, affirming the spiritual aspect of what he considered an appropriate wedding ceremony.
Shortly after the wedding and I asked how it went–I specifically asked if he was able to get through the ceremony without using the ‘G’ word. He smiled sheepishly and said, “No. I couldn’t do it. It just came out naturally.”
I wasn’t surprised, really. God is hard-wired in the brain in two different ways: one way has to do with the language we were taught–the words that work for us; and the other has to do with the subject of this sermon, which is the hard-wiring of God in a different way which I’ll try to explain.
The first way that God is hard-wired in the brain is simply through language. We learn language by imitating the sounds made by those around usparents or other care takers. We also pick up the nuance–the subtle suggestion conveyed by a word in the manner in which it is spoken, the tone of voice, the facial expression, and so forth. Many of the words we learned as children take on new meanings or a deeper dimension as we accumulate experience over the years. Hopefully that change and growth characterizes one’s religious or spiritual growth and development.
One of our problems as Unitarian Universalists is that we tend to think about the old wordsGod, heaven, hell, salvation, forgiveness, and so forth. What we believe about any of these things is a function of what we have experienced thus far in life, and how we have processed those experiences. Indeed, that is the function of the intellectual lifeprocessing experience; what does it all mean?
Now, having asked ‘what is God,’ the other basic question is ‘where is God?’ Where do you locate God, or the divine?
One of the most interesting books I read this summer was titled ‘Why God Won’t Go Away.’ It reports the work of a group of scientists who have located Godthey found God in the posterior superior parietal lobea bundle of neurons nestled in the top, rear section of the brain.
They call the science of locating God in the brain neurotheology. You won’t find the word neurotheology in Webster’s Dictionary this yearmaybe next year.
God, along with every other concept, is in the mind, in the brain: in the posterior superior parietal lobe. This is in not a denial of God, or of God’s existence, nor is it an attempt to promote a particular theology, or way of thinking about God. Neurotheologians simply say that the concept we call God, or spirituality, is located in a particular, identifiable section of the brain.
Neuroscientists have been mapping the brain for years, and it’s quite fascinating. There are sections of the brain for motor skills and language skillsthere’s the fight or flight section of the brainthe old brain, which is the most primitive section of the brain. We inherited that from the primates who preceded us on the planet.
Speaking of the primates who preceded us on the planet, we’re planning to do the courtroom scene from Inherit the Wind at our services on October 27. The debate between Clarence Darrow and Williams Jennings Bryant is as relevant today, for much the same reasons, as it was then. Perhaps it’s even more relevant since religionists are preventing medical advances and still trying to prevent women from reproductive choice, and so forth.
The part of the brain where God is locatedthe posterior superior parietal lobeis the source of what those folks planning their wedding referred to as spirituality, as opposed to religion, which is located somewhere elsea place from which many thoughtful persons feel alienated.
Everything we think, everything we believe, everything we fear, everything we love, everything we care about or hope for, is a function of the brain…what we call ‘the mind.’
Everything we say about God or spirituality is a metaphor: an attempt to describe those thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are imbedded in the brain…the mind.
Without the use of metaphor we could hardly have a conversation. We use metaphors all the time. We talk about love, for example, as if it was located ‘in the heart.’ We know perfectly well, however, that the heart is a muscle whose biological function is quite specific and essential to keeping us alive.
But when somebody says, “It broke my heart…it was a heart warming story…my heart is filled with love…” and so forth, we know they are talking about their emotional life, not their biological life.
On the other hand, if they say they had open-heart surgery, we know they’re not talking about their love life.
Think of all the ways we use body parts as metaphorsor at least look at a few. We say that someone or something is a ‘pain in the neck,’ or some other part of the anatomy, when what we mean is that the person or situation is bothersome.
We say that someone is ‘nosey,’ or ‘in your face,’ or ‘all ears.’ We say that something is ‘eating us up,’ or ‘breaking our back.’ We say something ‘brought us to our knees’; we describe how we ‘put our foot in our mouth,’ and so forth.
The point is that we speak in metaphors all the time, using figures of speech to compare one thing to another. Neuroscientists have been working on what they call the biology of beliefto find God in the brain.
They worked with groups of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns, wiring them up to observe neurological events that were occurring as they meditated and had them report on their experiences by a subtle movement of a finger when they reached the place where they believed they were one with God, as the Buddhists described it, or ‘mingling with God’ as the Franciscan nuns described it.
The scientists used the SPECT scan (single photon emission computed tomography) to observe the brain. What they discovered is that mystical experience is biologically observable and, therefore, scientifically validated.
They say, “Spiritual experience, at its very root, is intimately interwoven with human biology.” They talk about the “…universal human yearning to connect with something divine…” They review “The evolution of animal brains,” suggesting that this evolution “is generally marked by an increase in complexity…“
In talking of human evolution they say, “To better their chances of survival, (humans) banded together into tribes and clans and developed ways of communicating which allowed them to hunt, share resources, and defend themselves more efficiently. As their societies evolved, humans found more and more sophisticated ways to gain control over their environment in the form of cities, nations, governments, religions, cultures, technologies, and eventually science.”
One of the basic theological or philosophical questions is, ‘What makes us human?’ Scientists say it’s the cerebral cortex; specifically that part of the cerebral cortex referred to as the neo-cortex–the most recently developed region of the brain, where intelligence is located, separating us from the other animals and enabling us to create language, art, mythology, religion and culture…community.
We’ve been hearing for years about the two hemispheres in the brain: the left hemisphere controls the rational mind while the right hemisphere controls the emotional.
One of the fascinating things about us is the way the human brain has made up a mind of its own. “As the human brain evolved, with its great perceptual powers, began to perceive its own existence, and human beings gained the ability to reflect, as if from a distance, upon the perceptions produced by their own brains. There seems to be, within the human head, an inner, personal awareness, a free-standing, observant self. We have come to think of this self, with all its emotions, sensations, and cognitions, as the phenomenon of mind.“
Or, as the writers of Exodus said, “I Am that I AM, tell them I AM has sent you.” This famous definition of God in the Old Testament is consistent with the work of Newberg and D’aquilli. Where is God? Imbedded in the brain! It’s a metaphor, pointing to something very real, something that makes us human, something that moves the individual toward the good–the source of ethics and morality.
The burning bush story suggests the mind’s capacity to enter altered states of consciousness; call it mystical experience; call it what you will; the mind has some very powerful mechanisms, including what we think of as intuition…ways of knowing that are outside the usual function of the brain itself.
Emerson suggested that religion, at the deepest level, is not about ‘knowing,’ it’s about intuition. “Truly speaking, it (religion) cannot be received at second hand,” is the way he put it. (The Over-Soul) Moses is a symbol for every individual human being going about the business of living our daily lives. He didn’t realize who he was, remember. He was raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter, so he thought he was Egyptian. He didn’t realize that his mother was a Hebrew woman who put him in the water to save his life. He was in the midst of a great transition–we all go through great transitions, if we are free. He saw a bush that was burning but was not consumed. Isn’t that a metaphor for seeing Naturethings that have been there all the timein a new, more insightful way, including our own human nature–seeing things about ourselves in a more mature way? The so-called mystical experience is something that each of us can have? We long for it. Isn’t that why so many of us drive to Vermont to see the fall foliage? Or put flowers on the table? Or stop to notice a baby’s face, or take a camera to capture it?
Note that in the passage from Exodus God is not referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. In other words, each of them had his own God, planted in his own mind. “Religion can not be received at second hand.” Each of us has our own ‘god’ in the mind our brain has created.
Newberg says, “The experience of eating pie is all in your mind, but that doesn’t mean the pie is not real, or that it is not delicious.“
The word myth, the Greek mythos, translates as ‘word.’
“Were you thinking those were the words, those delicious sounds out of your friends mouths? No, the real words are more delicious than they. Air, soul, water, fire, those are words and I myself am a word with them. My qualities interpenetrate with theirs. The workmanship of souls is by those inaudible words of the earth.” Whitman
The mystical experience is often accompanied by the feeling of union, as opposed to separationthat we are One with God, or One with the universe…that we are not separate after all. Look again at the photograph of our earth taken from the moon by Apollo 13. We are One, after all!
These ‘religious experiences’ are good for the body, as well as the soul. Scientists explain how the immune system is enhanced by the body’s storehouse of chemicalswhat Norman Cousins called ‘the apothecary in the brain.’
Mystical experiences can be explained neurobiologically. That does not make them illusions. On the contrary, for those of us who like to think in rational terms, it validates them! It does not reduce God to ‘…a fleeting rush of electrochemical blips and flashes, racing along the pathways of the brain.‘ “The neurobiological aspects of spiritual experience support the sense of the realness of God.“
In Summary: Newberg and D’aquilli’s investigation of the location of God in the brain, the mind’s-eye-view, is an affirmation of the life of the mind.
This area of the brainthe posterior superior parietal lobeis the source of what we call ‘meaning, purpose and direction‘ in life. It is the new brain, highly evolved, and still evolving. It’s what distinguishes us from all the other creatures, with whom, for the most part, we are the same biological beings.
This area of the brainthis central place in what we call ‘mind,’ is the source of what we call our inner visionour ability to see the world as it is and to imagine how it could be, and should be.
This place or function of the mind is the source of our inner peace, as well.
From this place, this God-place in the mind, we are able to savor the worldto be in the Sabbath momentand to save the worldto take to the streets to march for peace, to work for justice, to reach out to a person in need, and so forth.
This God-place in the mind is the source of human compassionit’s why we care about one another’s pain and suffering and struggle; it’s why we form friendships and build community…it’s why we ‘give a damn.’
This God-place in the mind supplies the mystic with his or her ability to see with a ‘divine eye the mystery of the soul,’ as Emerson called it, and to realize that we are One, even as we live our lives as separate individuals, just the way the brain functions with billions of neurons that work together in a most amazing way. It’s what allows us to ‘mingle with God,’ as the Franciscan nuns put it.
You don’t have to be a mystic to visit this placeto feel the sense of wonder, to mingle with God, to realize that we are One with all that Is.
This affirmation does not in any way deny the place in the mind out of which flows evil. We know about greed, anger, jealousybut what are these things? Aren’t they natural functions of the brain that are out of control?
Isn’t greed simply the need to surviveto have enough food, clothes and shelter–that is out of control? Isn’t jealousy an aspect of lovethe need for human companionship– that is out of control? Isn’t murderous rage simply fearthe need to protect oneself and one’s loved ones–that is out of control?
We need more scientific study of the brain to locate the source of what we call evil in the brain. It may be located close to what we call God. More likely, however, it is located in the old brainwhat some call the reptilian brain stem.
One of the reasons we write, preach, and listen to sermons like this one is to gain better control over these aspects of the mindto find peace of mind; to think, reflect and gain new insights about ourselves and one another.
There is something in us which we need to nurturethis God-stuff, this basic human compassion. It is imbedded in the mind. The ancient Hebrews realized it intuitively and they captured it in the myth of Moses hearing It’s voice say, “I AM that I AM.”
The ancient Hindus realized it intuitively and they summarized it in their sripturesthe Bhagavad-gita:
“I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature. I am the beginning the lifespan and the end of creation. I am the divine seed of all lives. I am the beginning the lifespan and the end of creation. Whatever in this world is powerful, beautiful or glorious, that you may know to have come forth from a fraction of my power and glory.”
A song of the rolling earth and of words according…
were you thinking that those were the words,
those delicious sounds out of your friends’ mouths?
No, the real words are more delicious than they…
Air, soil, water, firethose are words,
I myself am a word with themmy qualities interpenetrate with theirs…
The workmanship of souls is by those inaudible words of the earth.